Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I Knew I Was on to Something.

I just picked up a most interesting book: Poisoned Apple, The Bell-Curve Crisis and How Our Schools Create Mediocirity and Failure by Betty Wallace and William Graves. I am only 50-some pages in but am finding the premises of these first chapters make sense to me.

Let me just say that I am not one of those homeschoolers who is completely anti-public school. I have three kids--one a junior in college who spent 10.5 of 12 years in public school and another a sophomore who is doing "just fine" at the local high school. Because of my three individuals, I do have the unique perspective of having one who was on the verge of boredom for much of her schooling (until AP classes), one who is smarter than his classes but is perfectly fine with mediocrity but who will turn on the burners when needed, and one who perpetually chased the ship out to sea, never quite catching the current.

This book discusses how our public system teaches to the middle of a bell-curve that in reality does not exist. In a given classroom, if students were plotted according to their abilities, there would be a skewed curve with some at the top end of proficiency, some at the bottom, and a widely varying range of those in between. The authors contend, and here is where my blog title comes in, that in a perfect world schools would not group students according to grade level but according to learning readiness. My daughter will vouch for me when I say this is what I have always said!  I am anxious to read on and discover what solutions the authors present. I will let you know.

I have been remiss in mentioning a few blog carnivals that were kind enough to mention my blog. Please check these out if you get a chance. There is a wealth of great writing among these listings:
The Homeschool Showcase Homeschooling

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Slow and Bumpy Road to Independence...

Are you familiar with the sound of a butt sliding into home base, as in "oh crud, Mom's home and I'd better look like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing?" I heard it distinctly this week as I pulled my stealth Prius into the garage. There he was, poised with pencil in hand, looking like the model student. Only problem was, he was still working on the same math lesson I had left him with two hours prior. And they think we are stupid.

Because we jumped into homeschooling in midstream 7th grade just a month ago, I've had to do a quick readjustment of my schedule. I don't have a ton of commitments but a few that do require my full attention for a few hours. Let's face it, life goes on and I'm sure that even veteran homeschool moms have to grocery shop, support their husbands, and do things other than teach their children. My struggle is in finding independent work for SJ that is doable and will be done.

One well meaning friend suggested leaving a bunch of worksheets for him. While I appreciate the suggestion, I have to note the fact of why I am homeschooling in the first place. Worksheets are worthless. For one, they are busy work. And second, they are a complete waste of time for my son who can't make sense of them anyway. At this point in our journey, he still requires my one-on-one attention to decipher most text, which is a bit of a problem for a mom who needs a little down time. I feel like I can barely leave to do the work I must do, let alone build in an occasional girlfriend lunch (which I desperately need).

The list I left this week included simple tasks such as: finish the math lesson (that we carefully reviewed), make a pie, read for 30 minutes, complete the grammar lesson (that we carefully reviewed), and watch a DVD documentary on Samurai warriors. He made the pie.

I would love to hear from some of you veterans with young teens and struggling learners. It's a unique combination and begs for altered expectations. Have you dealt with this? How? What kind of motivation or logical consequences have been particularly effective?  How do you structure your week so that you get a balance of mom-teacher/mom-person?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hormones, the Sun, and a Cheiroscope

Last week I talked about our slow-moving progress. This week, I may need to mention the slow-moving child, or should I say young man, or is it pubescent adolescent? Sheesh. Couple that with a little mom-type PMS and what a time we've had!

Three weeks ago when we started homeschooling, I told friends who were amazed by my energy that it would last about three weeks. It's been three weeks. I know myself that well. Never fear. I will plod ahead, making grace-filled amends for the molasses moments, keeping my eye on the reason we're doing this. If he is this goofy and distracted at home, how much worse would it have been in a classroom?

If you saw my last post, you would have noted that our friend, at least my friend, the sun has arrived in force. Longer days, better weather. It's all good for us here. Not bad for business either. :-) (If you wonder what we do, visit

In a bit of bummer news, we visited our Vision Therapist, Dr. Curtis Newcomb at Shasta Professional Eyecare, where he conducted a bit of refresher testing. I want to incorporate some of his VT exercises in our daily work and wondered which would be the most effective. SJ is suppressing his left eye again when he reads--not too badly, thankfully, but still. It's never fun to move backward. So, it's back to the cheiroscope which, I have to say, is probably one of our favorite exercises. Well, at least I think it's fun.

Here is a picture of the contraption we use:

He looks through the eyeholes in the top and this is what he sees:

If you will notice in the first photo, the little drawing is clipped to the side of the cheiroscope but the image is reflected by a little mirror as you can see in the second photo. SJ folds a piece of paper in quarters, puts it under the image, tries to center the image on the paper, and has to trace what he sees with a pencil. This is one of the beginner images. They get more detailed as he improves. He has to draw this four times: left eye, right hand; left eye, left hand; (turn the chieroscope) right eye, right hand; right eye, left hand. If he is suppressing, the image will disappear and I use the tip of a colored pen to mark the spot and help him regroup his vision. I know from our first round of therapy that the drawings will go from rudimentary to neat and balanced. It's a pretty cool progression to watch.

Our final dilemma this week came as we were feeling all smug about finally disconnecting our phone land line. We realized, too late, that our Tivo relied on our phone line. We are in danger of missing important and educational shows such as American Idol and my personal favorite, Millionaire Matchmaker. :-) I know many of you would be thrilled to ditch the TV altogether but in our home, especially as we approach July (Tour de France)--not an option. Now we must decide whether to go with Dish TV or Direct TV. Really saved money by disconnecting, didn't we? Oh well. We are all pretty excited about the prospect of having Discovery Channel as we've had only the very very basic cable plan for years.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Little Change of Scenery

How about this for a math venue? The time change seemed to have done a number on this one and wow, was he having a hard time concentrating. This worked better than the kitchen table! (That's the dog bed airing out in the backyard.)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

An Early High Point and Impromptu Science Lesson

Passed muster on my first meeting with my handler this week. (My "handler" is the adorable teacher lady who has oversight over our homeschool. Really, her job is to check in and make sure I am really teaching something. She also has the unenviable task of translating my teaching plans into California standards.)

Been thinking of things I need to say about teaching my struggling learner. I guess I thought I would have all these wonderfully creative ways of helping him assimilate information to report. What I am finding is that simply having one on one teaching is worth a thousand teaching theories.

My proudest moment of the week came as we discussed prewriting for a compare/contrast essay. When I write, I use a semi-outline; main ideas with bullet points and mind vomit on the lines following. It works for me. I wanted to give SJ the freedom to try something different so I showed him how to mind-map, using bubbles and a sort of diagram form to organize his thoughts. His first attempt required a GPS to follow. At first I praised him for the effort. I thought that if he knew what it meant, it would be ok.

Showers offer lots of clarity. It was there that it occurred to me that he really didn't "get" the mapping thing. Part of me didn't want to struggle with doing it over but the sane part told me, "Carrie, if you don't have him do it right, you will spend more heartache on revising a poor essay." So much to my dismay, I had him start the following day with his map. The boy didn't flinch. In fact, by the third point, he was off and running ahead of me, mapping sub-points. He "got it." It made me happy.

Then came the paper. Frankly, I didn't expect much. So far we have done much of our work together and this was one of the first long assignments he had to do on his own. Independent work proves challenging, whether it's because of his learning issue or because he is two weeks shy of 13, I'm not entirely sure. By Friday I knew I could not avoid reviewing the thing. I figured I would have him read it out loud so he could hear all the problem spots.

Imagine my shock as he read what I would consider an A or B grade essay! He made his points, supported them, and gave concrete examples. I was ecstatic. He grinned. It was a good moment. I think this is gonna work. 

One thing we discovered over this past week is that the allergies we have been battling for the past eight years are really gigantic adenoids. And this is the thing I love about homeschool--we jumped ahead in the science text to the lymph system so he could discover what that meant and what a surgery might entail. I am not exaggerating when I say our entire family looks forward to the day when he can breathe clearly again. I can only imagine how this condition has affected his learning (attention) over the past several winters.

Two weeks down and I am still having fun. The lithmus test is SJ and according to him, homeschool is "good." That's his way of saying, Thanks Mom and Thumbs Up.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The first thing I have learned as a homeschooling mom is that I may need to redefine progress. If progress means movin' through stuff at a moderate clip, we have not budged. If, instead, it means understanding whatever stuff one gets through, we may be in business.

While I am pleased at the overall quantity of work we have managed, which to some might seem like not much, I have found that each lesson seems to open a door to five other lessons that need to be mastered before the current one can make sense. I shouldn't be surprised because I suspected SJ missed many foundational lessons in learning, but it can be a tad overwhelming.

For instance, a simple vocabulary list turned into lessons on how to interpret a dictionary's meanings, choosing the best one for the application, deciphering abbreviations, and deconstructing definitions.  Sending him to do some internet research first required an understanding of search engines, how they work, how to get meaningful results, and how to evaluate whether a website is credible. The thing is, these are activities he has been doing for years in class...with nary an understanding as to why.

It's rewarding to unlock the puzzles of learning with my son but it is slow-going. The requirements of the California Standards are ever looming, but as long as I keep my eye on the fact that knowing how to learn eventually reaps real learning, I think we will be o.k. and SJ will make real and measurable progress.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Welcome to Homeschool. Now Take a Test.

We have a whole lot of freedom in our homeschooling but we are not beyond the reach of California standards, it seems. Because we chose to align with a public charter, SJ is subject to all the same STAR testing elements as public school kids. Today he had to take the 7th grade Writing Test.

My views on said tests have changed over the years. I will apologize now for my obnoxiousness over my first child's performance. I really had no idea that anyone could score lower than 98% on any portion of the tests. She made it look that easy. I'm not sure gloat would be the right word, but certainly I will admit to a wee bit of pride in her performance. My thought: Look how smart she is!

When my second child was old enough to submit to STAR wars, I mean testing, I discovered that not everyone scored 98%. Still, though, he did well enough to keep my parental pride afloat. My thought: Two out of three ain't bad. We are doing something right. Again, the apology...

If you don't have three children, I recommend adding to your quiver because really, the third will cure you of all delusions and control you may have thought you had.

Imagine my shock as I opened the end-of-summer envelope that would tell me, once again, how wonderfully smart my child had become only to discover the State had sent the wrong results. Only homeless children could achieve the low scores exhibited. I checked the name. My son. I checked the scores. Clearly, Below Basic. Yikes. What do you do with that?

I'll tell you what you do. You reevaluate the need for standardized tests and question what they really test. I'm not trying to be a sore loser here but really, if you think it through, you realize the tests are testing whether or not the school has achieved its teaching goals (as set by the State). Secondarily, I guess, it measures your child--if your child is a good test-taker. For a struggling learner (notice I did not say a Below Basic student), the tests only serve to frustrate. To a right brain learner who prefers spatial imaging, "big picture" thinking, and emotional connection, those test booklets are akin to writing a thesis in cursive...backwards.

Mind you, I am all for measurements. I am all for valid and reliable test documents as well. But these are not it. I wish I had the answer. In the free market, customers talk with their dollars. Competition breeds innovation and excellence and underperformers, unless subsidized by the government, eventually die. The problem for schools (and teachers) is that there are as many opinions as there are parents and because of the familial prejudice, we should all question the accuracy of parental review.

For now I am content with school choice. Homeschooling aside, I am fortunate to live in a county, state, and country that gives me options to find the best fit for each of my children. And each one has chosen different paths. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to homeschool as I do realize not everyone understands it, believes in it, or even worse, has the opportunity or the means to pursue it. (That's a whole 'nother post, discussing how we have set ourselves up to rely on public schools as both babysitter and teacher. I'm not moralizing here, just sayin' that's how it is.)

So we submit to the public standards tests. The results will be what they will be. It comes at a good time this year in that I can take no culpability in the poor results but I would hope that next year, we will see improvement. I am not holding my breath.

Monday, March 1, 2010

First Day Done

I'm going to have to say the first day of our homeschool was a success.

SJ sauntered out around 8 a.m. and took his time having breakfast. I wondered how he would react when the bus stopped (right in front of our house) to pick up a former schoolmate. I needn't have worried. Rather than feeling left out, he felt lucky to be home.

After getting dressed and feeding the neighbor's cat, we got started. It was 10:00 a.m. Nice. We talked for a few minutes about how this would work and then reviewed what I think we might be able to accomplish this week.

Here is what we did:
  • Vision therapy. We plan to start each day with a few exercises we learned during his VT program. I can see I need a refresher on some of them.
  • Math. The challenge here was to figure out where he left off in school and then find the similar section in the book we chose for home. I think we landed in the right spot but it will continue to be a searchy, learny thing to discover what he "got" and what he didn't. 
  • Computer. Crash course on internet browsers and how to organize bookmarks and files. I let him choose his "headings" and we loaded them with several fun-looking (but educational) sites. We played around on a few of them, such as PBS' Nova site that has endless videos, podcasts, and activities.
  • Lunch. Gotta eat.
  • Reading comprehension disguised as Bible devotions. It occurred to me that SJ knows how to "look up" verses but doesn't really know how to "use" his bible. There are all kinds of great little resources in his NIV Adventure Bible so we started at the front where we looked at each icon, read what it represented, then looked for examples within the text. 
  • PE. An hour and a half of no school bell telling him to stop playing. He loved this.
  • Facebook set-up with Dad. Halfway done. (Don't friend him yet!)
  • Reading. He will read tonight. I told him he can read anything that has real text (as in, not Calvin and Hobbes).
  • Writing. Low-key end of day exercise where I asked him to write what he liked and what he did not like about his day. Here is what he said: "I enjoyed today because it was easier than school because it only took two hours instead of 6 (sic). Everything was easy and so that is why I enjoyed it so much." (Disclaimer for the sake of his teacher: It took about three hours. :-) ) 
It looks like alot of work and it looks like not enough at the same time but I'm happy with what we did. When he worked, he was engaged and what he didn't understand, I explained. So he thought it was easy, isn't that the objective? Does learning have to be hard to be good? What do you think?

A few challenges:
  • S was bored by 3:00 p.m. No homework. Done with school. He was a little adrift.
  • Hubbie and I have to change our Monday "dates" for awhile. That one is harder to swallow because we enjoy our bike rides and lunches but both of us realize we need to be a little more "present" for awhile before we let SJ work independently. I need to remember to schedule "our" time to make sure we get it.
  • Tomorrow I have bible study which is a non-negotiable time for me. How will he do for two and half hours? How will I feel, knowing I have another responsibility while trying to enjoy my own social life?